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Las Vegas, translated from Spanish as “the meadows” was discovered and thus established in 1829 by the Mexican merchant Antonio Armijo, who led a trade caravan of 60 men creating a trade route to Los Angeles. Ironically, what historically was established as a mere transition point on a route, became one of the most remarkable places in the United States, “a pearl in a desert. ” Practically, the rapid growth of Las Vegas as both a tourist destination and a community is directly related to the development of the image of Las Vegas.
Even though Nevada was the last state to outlaw gambling in 1909 and the first state subsequently to legalize gambling in 1931, Las Vegas city fathers were more concerned with the divorce laws than reinstating gambling, and throughout most of the 1930s, gambling remained a sideline for Las Vegas. But the eighth wonder of the world, as Boulder Dam was then billed, “began to funnel a torrent of tourists” to the Las Vegas Valley (Boorstin, 1987:3). Las Vegas leaders envisioned their town as a Nevada Palm Springs.
Alan Hess, in his book Viva Las Vegas, observes, “They began to promote their characteristic western identity, the desert scenery, a social mix of laissez-faire government and neighborly hospitality embodied in speedy divorces and easy gambling” (Hess, 1993:19). In 1932, a year after the legalization of gambling, the then-luxurious, three-story Hotel Apache opened in downtown Las Vegas. With a motif of Native American design and an elevator to the supper club on top, the Apache was the most modern for its day. By 1936, the dam was completed and Las Vegas, with no more big payroll checks from dam workers, was beginning an economic slump.
But, between 1938 and 1942 several changes occurred to avert the slump. In 1938, Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Brown had begun enforcing the no gambling laws in California and many California gamblers moved to Las Vegas. Guy McAfee, a police captain and commander of the vice squad, was one of these California gamblers who moved into Las Vegas where he purchased the Pair-O-Dice Club in 1939. McAfee is credited with naming that part of the Los Angeles Highway which came into Las Vegas as “The Strip” in fond memory of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It would be several years before ‘The Strip” would gain its present day fame.
Federal intervention also assisted the Las Vegas economy when President Roosevelt’s administration ordered air bases throughout the country. In 1940 Las Vegas received an air training station on the outskirts of town, and in 1941, Basic Magnesium, Inc. (BMI) was built, which created the city of Henderson. ” Las Vegas found itself with two new industries-recreation provided by the dam and lake, and defense, provided by the training station and BMI. The recreation (tourism) and defense industries would shape many western cities throughout the rest of the century.
Fremont Street, Las Vegas’s main thoroughfare, boomed. As Don Knepp said in Las Vegas Entertainment Capital, “There also emerged the image of Las Vegas as the glamorous hub for vacations in the Southwest” (Knepp, 1987:31). The city leaders had begun promoting Las Vegas as a tourist Mecca, and the WPA Guide to Nevada, the Silver State, 1940, seemed to approve of the methods when it said of Las Vegas, “No cheap and easily parodied slogans have been adopted to publicize the city, no attempt has been made to introduce pseudo-romantic architectural themes, or to give artificial glamour and gaiety” (Hess, 1993:20). 941 saw further growth for the Strip and downtown. The El Rancho opened with a dude ranch theme and atmosphere.
Built by Californian Thomas E. Hull, the El Rancho established a pattern of roadside landmarks, vistas and signs that broke with the tradition of downtown Las Vegas hotels and realized a vision that would mold the city’s current form. The El Rancho duplicated the easy accessibility of the roadside motel, but with much more grandeur. While the downtown Hotel Apache was fancy, the El Rancho was lavish. Downtown, the El Cortez opened.
Built by Californians Marion Hicks and John Grayson and although multistory, as most downtown hotels were, the El Cortez also kept to the western or Spanish theme. After stopping at the El Rancho, William J. Moore and R. E. Griffith, realizing the potential of thousands of gambling customers from the gunnery school, built the Last Frontier. Opening in October 1942, the Last Frontier also western in theme, was larger and more opulent than the El Rancho. McAfee, not satisfied with owning just the Pair-O-Dice Club, tried to upstage the El Rancho by building the Pioneer Club at Fremont and First Streets.
Also consciously western in style, the Pioneer Club opened in 1942. Even though western in design, as late as 1947 Las Vegans were amazed that something so lavish as the El Rancho could succeed so far from downtown. The success of the El Rancho, the Pioneer Club and the Last Frontier was impressive enough that the city boosters considered making the western theme mandatory for Fremont Street. Although many downtown casino owners followed suit, the idea was never formally adopted. As Las Vegas became more savvy about the potential of a tourist economy, it began to exploit its western heritage more consciously.
In keeping with the western motif, dude ranches replaced motels to provide divorce seekers a place to stay until their six weeks residency requirements were met The western influence provided a successful venue for divorce interests and gambling, two of the leading economic factors for Las Vegas. Close behind McAfee was Bugsy Siegel, who began by taking over the Las Vegas race betting wires, and, as a representative of Al Capone, “muscled out the Continental Press Service and gained part ownership of several Fremont Street Clubs including the Pioneer Club.
Although there was already an obscure element of “gangsters” in Las Vegas, Siegel was publicly known for his ties to organized crime. Siegel brought with him the negative aspect of the influence of organized crime, but he also brought the positive aspect of establishing a landmark luxury resort with the building of his Flamingo which broke with the western theme. The half-finished Flamingo officially opened with Jimmy Durante as entertainment in 1946; finances forced closure of the resort four weeks later, but the Flamingo reopened in 1948.
Knepp credits Siegel with bringing extensive national exposure to Las Vegas; the notoriety attached to “the Fabulous Flamingo” branded Las Vegas as an underworld haven, a reputation that has persisted (Knepp, 1987:32). World War II created a shortage of construction materials which also created most of the financial difficulties Siegel experienced while building the Flamingo. But the federal government, including the war and defense spending, contributed greatly to Nevada, especially Las Vegas. Eugene P. Moehring states in his book, Resort City in the Sunbelt, that “Defense spending was an obvious by-product of the worldwide conflict. But, like the dam earlier, World War II strengthened the town’s recreational economy” (Moehring, 1995:40). The war also brought some disadvantages such as curfews, which cut profits by closing casinos from 2 to 10 a. m. and meat rationing, which caused some restaurants to close. “Clearly, the national emergency created many problems for Las Vegas” (Moehring, 1995:40).
Yet, much the same as Hoover Dam before it, World War II represented a bonanza for the small town’s economy. The war helped confirm gambling as Las Vegas’s main postwar industry; “By partially depriving the city of tourists for almost four years, the war magnified their [tourists] importance in the minds of promoters” (Moehring, 1995:40). The end of the World War II brought an end to the shortages of construction materials which had plagued Siegel and the 1950s brought the largest growth expansion in American history. This expansion occurred in the western United States, led by the state of Nevada.
As 1950 opened, Nevada contained approximately 160,000 residents: by 1955, the population was about 245,000, a rise of more than 53 percent (Glass, 1981:39). By the end of the 1950s, Nevada’s population had increased 75 percent, to 285,000 residents, making it the fastest-growing state in the country. During this expansion, Nevada’s economy flourished thanks to mining, to the Freeport Law and to the test site in Las Vegas. But, it was gambling that brought about the unprecedented growth. By 1955, mining still outstripped gambling by just under $100,000, but as Jane Glass, in her book Nevada’s Turbulent 50% asked, “Who noticed? Well, of course the people who were working the mines noticed and the tax collectors who pulled in the highest amount on record but, “almost nobody else” (Glass, 1981:92) which seems to imply that Nevada, especially Las Vegas, had forgotten the rich economy of mining, preferring instead to credit gambling as the biggest boon the state’s economy. The Freeport Law was the legacy of Edwin Bender, an administrator for a federal agency in charge of storing strategic war material, when he discovered a shortage of space in which to store the items. By the end of the 1940s, Bender found himself with a surplus of space and a shortage of goods.
Later, when the county tax assessor evaluated some of the items for tax purposes, Bender felt the taxation to be unfair. He wrote a proposal for what became the Freeport bill and with the help of Nevada Attorney General Alan Bible, who drew up the bill. Owners of warehouses and light manufacturing firms found Nevada’s tax climate substantially to their liking and, the Freeport Law became a significant economic advantage. After twenty-five years, three-quarters of a billion dollars worth of goods were being shipped yearly by truck and rail from the warehouses in the state (Glass, 1981:44).
Although initially slow to move, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce became deeply involved in designing and planning for tourists as early as 1944. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and its boosters, fearing for the postwar economy sponsored a fund raiser to raise $75,000 as a budget for promoting the city as a tourist destination. During the war, the two largest industries had been the Army Air Base and Basic Magnesium, Inc. Surveys and research led the Chamber to the conclusion that tourism was now the best means to a good economy and the Chamber set out to attract visitors.
Before long however, Las Vegas found it had to deal with the underworld image that had grown up thanks to “Bugsy” Siegel and others. The Chamber of Commerce tried several different public relations firms and advertising firms to draw attention away from the negative publicity of gangsters as well as the wild city image previously promoted. When these firms failed to promote the city in what Las Vegans and the Chamber felt was a positive way, the Chamber hired the West Marquis Agency to handle promotion. The West Marquis Agency was subsequently replaced when the Chamber felt it too had failed.
It appears the Chamber need not have worried. Surveys now have shown that during the time of heavy gangster influence, tourists came to Las Vegas in the hopes of actually seeing a gangster. Knepp supports this view, “For most visitors in the 1940s, however, the reputed underworld ties seemed only to highlight the city’s wide open appeal. ” (Knepp, 1987:32). Nevertheless, by the 1950s, promoting Las Vegas and creating the acceptable image had become a concerted effort of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the city and the casinos who hired their own communication specialists.
Contemporary Las Vegas is a place famous for extremely high concentration of world largest and what is more important, famous, casinos, among which are Stratosphere Hotel and Tower, the Las Vegas Hilton, the Rio Suites, the Gold Coast, the Maxim, the San Reno, the Continental, the new Paris and the smaller Hard Rock, Luxor, and the Circus Circus. Las Vegas Valley and its dominant industry generate a great many statistics, some misleading, others conflicting. In 1995-96, gamblers left behind $3. billion at the machines, tables, and sports books of the Strip compared to $683 million Downtown, a fact that gives some idea of the relative importance of the two in the industry that created and still runs Las Vegas (Littlejohn and Gran, 1999:2-3). Las Vegas has more hotel rooms than any other city in the world (more than a hundred thousand in 1998, with twenty thousand more either planned or under construction), and the highest average hotel-occupancy rate (87 to go percent) of any American city.
In 1995, the Zagat Guide estimated that it offered the lowest average daily hotel room rate of the thirty-three leading U. S. visitor destinations. Moreover, Las Vegas currently contains nine of the world’s ten largest hotels. Las Vegas claims to be the number-one tourist destination in the U. S. , with more than 30 million visitors a year. Nevada had in 1996 both the highest marriage rate (ten times the national average, due primarily to out-of-state couples who come to Las Vegas and Reno to marry) and the highest divorce rate (more than double the national average).
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports for 1995, Las Vegas had the highest total crime rate and the highest rate of crimes against property among all American cities with more than 250,000 people (Littlejohn and Gran, 1999:5). Police reports for that year placed Las Vegas fourth among U. S. metropolitan areas of over a million population – after Miami, Phoenix, and Oklahoma City – in the rate of all serious crimes; 14. 7 percent of these were called “violent. ”